West urged to share Internet governance

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West urged to share Internet governance

Last December, thousands of politicians and technology experts converged on Geneva for the first of two World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS). Several years in the making, the WSIS was envisioned as a new forum for the digital age.

Instead, it primarily provided a showcase for developing-country concerns over the growing digital divide and opened a potential fissure over Internet governance.

In the months that followed, those involved in the WSIS began to work toward bridging the differences exposed in Geneva.

The two competing perspectives typically pit the United States and some developed- world allies including Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe on one side and the developing world, led by Brazil, China, and India, with some support from Europe, on the other.

The U.S.-led perspective posits that in the context of the Internet “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Supporters of the U.S. position maintain that the private sector-led approach, in which the U.S. retains ultimate authority over the domain-name system yet grants day-to-day administration to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is at least partly responsible for the Internet’s phenomenal success.

Moreover, the U.S. argues that Internet governance matters are primarily technical issues that do not require government intervention.

The developing world counters this position by arguing that the Internet may in fact be broken. Global Internet policies have a direct impact on national policies and many countries, having only recently awoken to the Internet’s importance, are uncomfortable with their perceived marginalization in the process.

Furthermore, the developing world also professes concern over the U.S.’s ultimate control over the domain name system.

These highly charged issues have now been the subject of two major meetings — one in Geneva hosted by the International Telecommunications Union in late February and a second in New York in late March hosted by the United Nations ICT Task Force.

Having attended both meetings, it has become increasingly clear to me that contrary to many media reports, the WSIS is about much more than just the domain name system.

Although that admittedly serves as the focal point for discussion, I believe the debate actually rests with three issues, two of which extend far beyond management of the domain name system.

First, with the exception of the U.S. and a few of its supporters, much of the world would prefer to have the domain name system management decentralized among the broader global community.

Although there have been few actual problems thus far, given the importance of the Internet for both the developed and developing world, a framework that distributes ultimate authority over the broader community is viewed by many as essential.

Second, policy makers and technologists must acknowledge that the Internet’s technical issues raise policy concerns. While some in the Internet governance community still maintain that they are engaged solely in technical management, the policy implications — from free speech to intellectual property protection to privacy — are deeply embedded in their technological choices. These policy effects can no longer be ignored and appropriate mechanisms must be established to facilitate a robust and transparent policy debate.

Third, and most fundamentally, governments are struggling with the perception that they have lost control over their traditional governance mechanisms.

That loss of control is focused chiefly on the inability to enforce longstanding rules domestically as citizens can frequently evade traditional law through a network that does not easily conform to real-space borders.

While it is tempting to characterize this as a positive development that leaves dictatorial regimes unable to suppress free speech, we should bear in mind that governments in the developed world regularly express similar concerns when matters such as spam or intellectual property protections are raised.

These issues will not be solved overnight and the future WSIS timetable, which calls for the second summit to be held in Tunis in the fall of 2005, is likely overly ambitious. With that caveat, the WSIS does hold the potential to make some headway into issues that have been lurking amongst governments for many years.

On the Internet governance front, the WSIS provides a useful forum to consider alternative mechanisms to enable the global community to share in the governance of the domain name system.

Such mechanisms might include new formulations to address the policy issues presented by Internet governance matters or the division of Internet governance responsibilities among several organizations.

While the WSIS alone cannot solve the sense of lost control, it does have the potential to identify those issues that warrant global co-operation.

For example, at the most recent meetings, spam has been cited as an issue in need of such a global forum to facilitate increased co-operation between countries.

Although the instinctive reaction among many in the Internet community is to cringe at the prospect of greater United Nations involvement in Internet matters, the WSIS has highlighted several legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. Its success over the next 18 months may go a long way to determining whether the global community is ready for a co-operative approach to Internet governance.

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